by Rabbi Moshe B. Parnes in Townhall
Passover is an intriguing holiday. It features unusual customs and practices with deep and sometimes mysterious meanings. Not only is it the world’s longest continuous celebration of any kind but it features the earliest examples of ethnic foods, like matzah and marror, the special bitter herbs, which are still eaten by Jews throughout the globe today. In fact, many of the rituals of the Passover ceremony, commonly called the seder, are timeless, so much so that traditional Jews would be as comfortable sitting at the biblical Moses’ Passover table as they are at their own.
Passover, like all Jewish festivals, is marked by unique cuisine. My mind takes me back to the delicious food my grandmother and my mother prepared in honor of the weeklong event – specially spiced meats and fish, cholent, cabbage soup, and copious amounts of crispy matzah. I also remember my father dressed in his pure white festival robe presiding over the seder, explaining the rituals, and sharing the story of the Exodus with his family and our guests.
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But my most keen memories from the Passovers of my youth, and of our own seders, which were copied from my parents’ playbook, are of the people who shared the seder with us. They were fascinating and diverse and often very colorful. There were exotic Jews from Africa and the Middle East, poor people who could not scrape together the money to make a seder of their own, intellectuals who expounded on the holiday’s meaning as if they heard it from Moses himself, together with people so assimilated they barely knew what Passover was. Yet, they all seemed to meld together through the rituals, the food, and the songs. Strangers became life-long friends – for the evening.
What is it about Passover – Pesach in Hebrew – that makes it so unique? What ancient gene draws Jews together and seems to compel them to share the traditions with family, whom they rarely see during the rest of the year, and with newfound friends, whom they most probably will never meet again? And what lessons can civilization learn from this most ancient of celebrations?
The Haggadah, the book read aloud at the seder encapsulating the enslavement and miraculous exodus of the Jewish people from the hands of the cruel Egyptians, features a passage, like many similar passages, which is both remarkable and cryptic. It asserts that had God not freed the Jewish people they would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt. It is a particularly remarkable assertion given that it was written at a time when there was no longer Pharaonic rule in Egypt. It is further remarkable in that it assumes that no benevolent nation would have freed the Jews from slavery as so many nations did throughout history when they abolished slavery.
This short statement defines the essence of the Jewish people and underscores one of the great lessons mankind can learn from our story. God alone redeemed the Jews thereby making them a nation beholden only to their Creator. He did not want the Jewish people to suffer from a slave mentality and to constantly rely on handouts from others to survive. He, therefore, engineered redemption through a series of Divine miracles conceived and carried out by God alone. He wanted Jews to remember their former enslaved state with pride, not with embarrassment or subservience, but as a conduit to gratitude to their Redeemer.
The Talmud defines Passover as a Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish New Year, of sorts. It certainly is a time of unbridled joy, but also a time of introspection similar to the intense reflection of the High Holy Days. Passover does not just mark redemption from the cruel Egyptian enslavement, it is the celebration of the forging of the Jewish People as an independent and proud people with a unique destiny rising high above the considerable challenges and obstacles history has placed in its path. As Mark Twain once observed, “The Jew has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all ages, and has done it with his hands tied behind him.”
Even the most religiously distant Jews seem to awaken on Passover. They become alive to the ancient lessons ingrained in them by this most defining of festivals. They recognize true independence and how to manage adversity. They look deeply at Jewish history and understand how to carry their former enslavement not as a deformity to be hidden from public view, but as a proud expression of loyalty to the God who guides them. And, most importantly, they are empowered to pass their Passover knowledge onward for future generations to appreciate.
Originally published in Townhall